Disabilities: It’s too much talk, not enough walk

By: Shefik Bey
Date: February, 2015
File under: Articles

Public awareness of disability has been heightened by the release of The Theory of Everything. The film, which tells the story of Stephen Hawking, has become an Academy Award winner and grossed $35 million in earnings so far. For these reasons, we could assume we live in a society that is genuinely concerned about our fellow man and his plight. But when Joseph France, a 12-year-old British boy with cerebral palsy, went to a cinema to watch The Theory of Everything he was stunned to find it was screening in a theatre that did not have disabled access.

In a separate incident, 31-year-old Richard Bridger, who suffers from muscular dystrophy and uses a lifesaving ventilator, was asked to leave a screening after six customers complained that the noise of his machine was ‘a nuisance’.

Despite ‘political correctness’ becoming a part of popular culture, these two recent examples from the UK suggest that consideration for those with accessibility requirements is still lacking in the physical world.

Drivers behind accessibility in the online world

So what about the online world? The conversation on accessibility has been ‘trending’ for the past 12 to 18 months in Australia, driven in no small part by the Australian Government’s National Web Transition Strategy, which requires all government sites to be compliant with web accessibility guidelines.

What are the motivations?

But for those who are not necessarily required to bring their website to a more accessible standard, what are the motivations? The two British news items led me to consider the parallels with companies who take steps to make their web content accessible. I find myself wondering:

  • How much of this measure is to avoid legal litigation?
  • Is this initiative being put in place because they’re worried about image?
  • Is this a move to improve SEO and therefore increase their bottom line? And if so, is that a bad thing?
  • Like the cinema examples above, how much of this is reactive i.e. implemented after a complaint rather than proactive?

Everyone wants to look responsible and avoid a lawsuit. But that to me sounds a lot like self-preservation. The rationale behind every compliance point in the W3C guidelines relies on the ability of the individual web designer, developer or author to put themselves in the shoes of a user with disabilities. When I explain to a client how to make their website compliant for use with JAWS screen reading software I can’t help but wonder whether they ever consider the barriers a person with a motor or vision impairment encounters every day in the non-digital world.

Changing attitudes towards disabilities

I really want to believe that the growing interest in web accessibility is for the right reasons – not just legal. Optimists amongst us, such as 18th century philosopher Rousseau, argue that people are instinctively concerned with their fellow man’s welfare.

It’s reasonable to assume that if Rousseau were alive today, he might see the W3G guidelines, the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Australia) and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as unnecessary as humans (really) do care – it’s ‘instinctive’.

But the fact that regulatory frameworks are often required for change to happen suggests otherwise.

Confronting the uneasy truth that catering for disabilities in the online world is considered a ‘nuisance’ by some paints a grim picture for those dedicated to encouraging and enforcing web accessibility initiatives and guidelines – it’s an uphill battle.

We are regularly surprised at the lack of focus on web accessibility, even when major redevelopment projects are taking place.

The good news is that we create the world we live in. Hopefully Rousseau was right and more people will be driven by the will do the right thing. The fact there are powers that enforce web accessibility standards gives me hope.

The reality is that whether accessibility compliance is driven by altruistic reasons, a desire for profit, or the aim of avoiding litigation, at the end of the day what really matters is that accessibility is considered a key outcome. It’s achievable, the right thing to do, and it’s the user who benefits – whatever their ability.


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